What Association Education Teams Need to Know about Membership Trends

Every year, we see the release of more and more research reports in the association space. But the one I eagerly await each year is one of the oldest, the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General, Inc. (MGI). 

MGI’s been doing this survey for 15 years. This year, 814 associations participated—that’s 113 more than last year. The report is full of interesting data (and comments) about member recruitment, engagement, and renewal trends, dues, membership models, and more. It’s useful for benchmarking your association’s performance against others and getting a sense for where all things membership are going.

Membership value: the struggle is real

The good news: since the pandemic, membership growth has returned, an impressive feat considering the problems associations have with their membership value proposition. Only 51% of associations believe their membership value proposition is compelling or very compelling, that’s down two points from last year. The other half believe their value proposition is mediocre, more specifically, only somewhat (40%), not very (8%), or not at all compelling (2%). 

60% of associations believe people aren’t joining because they don’t see the value of membership. One survey respondent described the situation at their association: “Nothing is behind a password wall. All benefits and resources are for anyone who visits our website. Outside of discounted conference fees and priority communications about scholarships and leadership programs, there is no extra incentive to maintain membership.”
We wrote about this problem in a recent post about member engagement. Can you really call something a benefit if members have to pay extra for it? For example, education programs—conferences, webinars, courses and online learning programs—are not benefits if anyone can access them. Sure, membership discounts are a benefit. But if you want to give members an exclusive benefit, consider offering a selection of free online education and networking programs

Do you have a membership value problem or a marketing problem? 

45% of association executives say the reason their value proposition is uncompelling is that they can’t effectively articulate what it is. My spidey sense is tingling. Is persuasive copy really the problem or are they trying to sell an inferior product? 

Another reason for uncompelling value propositions: inadequate staff (40%). That’s a vicious cycle. If you don’t have anyone with the time to do market and member research, develop new benefits, and market new programs, you’ll never generate the revenue to hire more staff. 

The third (frank) reason for a mediocre value proposition: an overall lack of membership benefits (36%), the commenter’s lament.

MGI says value propositions must not be that bad because the average member retention rate is 85%. But how much of that is due to members who renew without giving it much thought? Their employer pays or they know they have to pay to play—it’s what’s expected of people like them. What happens when the loyalists retire? And how much business is left on the table because the value proposition isn’t resonating with more professionals in the industry?

With all the changes going on and younger generations rising up in the workforce, you can’t assume your value proposition is still competitive. Talk with members and non-members to find out what the market really thinks.

Membership trends by generation

Here’s association membership by generation:

•    Boomers - 32%
•    Gen X - 31%
•    Millennial - 21%
•    Gen Z - 9%, up from 6% last year
•    Silent Generation (born before 1945) - 8%

MGI found a correlation between membership growth and a healthy Millennial membership. Only 30% of membership represents Gen Z and Millennial membership. I wonder if that’s been typical for early-career professionals in the past or if we’re seeing a new worrisome trend. 

A survey participant made an interesting comment about the retirement of Boomers, the ones who know the profession’s history and the role the association played in advancing members’ interest.

“Newer members may take for granted gains we made in the past. They may not recognize the role they must play in supporting the association to continue to fight for improved conditions on their behalf.”

This is a call to educate and rally your industry around issues all generations care about. Host industry-wide discussions about the legacy and future for professionals in your industry. Honor the old while making promises to the new. 

membership trends discussion among three association professionals

Why members join: networking and education

Networking is the top reason for joining, per 64% of associations, up one point from last year. Here’s the breakdown by type of association: 

•    Individual membership organizations (IMO) - 58%
•    Trade associations - 68%
•    Combination associations (both individual and organizational memberships) - 66%

Networking means conversations, relationships, belonging, and community—the practical and emotional reasons people keep renewing. Always offer conversational activities in education programs

Education as a reason to join is right up there. MGI splits education into two categories.

•    Continuing education and professional certification - 39%, up three points from last year. IMO 50%, which is much higher than trade associations at 19%, combination is similar to IMO at 45%.

•    Learning best practices - 33%, up two points from last year. IMO 28%, trades higher this time at 36%, combination 34%.

Another interesting data point for trade associations: advocacy is ranked second as a reason to join with 44%, up 15% from last year. Take advantage of this need by offering education programs focused on legal and regulatory issues for trade association members.

No surprise to us, MGI found a correlation between members joining for education and membership growth. Continual learning is essential for career stability and advancement. 

A survey participant commented about a challenge many associations face: “Competition from more industry-focused associations that offer more advanced education, research, or certification products.” You want to be one of those industry-focused associations that knows and delivers what the different segments of its market need. 

Member participation trends in education programs

If you read industry publications, you won’t be surprised at this finding: 58% of associations report a rise in attendance at in-person annual conferences and trade shows, up from 26% last year. 

For online education and certification programs:

•    47% of associations report an increase in the number of members acquiring or maintaining certification
•    46% report an increase in attendance at online professional development events
•    44% report an increase in webinar attendance
•    39% report an increase in online annual conference/trade show attendance

Unfortunately, MGI also found an increase in the number of associations reporting declines in attendance for online professional development events (17%), webinars (15%) and annual conferences (27%). But those percentages are well below the number of associations reporting increases or no change for those programs.

Some people may avoid online programs because they’re tired of spending time on Zoom and Teams. But many more can’t or won’t attend in-person events, so online programs must be part of an education portfolio. Combat Zoom fatigue by making programs shorter, for example, 45 minutes max for webinars. Many people would appreciate 30-minute programs instead. 

Always give attendees opportunities to interact with others. Don’t replicate in-person events: design an engaging online learning experience.

Idea to steal: new member action plan

A survey participant said, “Members join an organization for several reasons, but I found the number one reason is always career enhancement. Making sure your new members are aware of the different benefits and networking opportunities available and how to use them to improve/build their professional network is key.”

They’re right. The top three reasons for joining (networking, education/certification, best practices) are all about career enhancement. 

But many associations are missing an opportunity to start off strong with new members. Only 54% have a new member onboarding campaign, despite MGI finding a correlation between onboarding campaigns and membership growth.

Here’s a promising idea from a survey participant. Their association has an onboarding committee who’s charged with creating an involvement plan for each new member based on their reason for joining. 

If you can’t find volunteers to do that with each new member, post sample action plans on your website. Base each one on a membership goal and keep them updated with the latest events, programs, and resources. Connect these plans with learning pathways for different career goals

Download the MGI report to see how your membership numbers and practices stack up against other associations. Keep reading all the way through the Words of Wisdom section at the end, where you’re sure to find new ideas to explore.  

member engagement
membership benefits
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